Being a Woman and a Diplomat
This TED Talk was specially selected to support lessons from Chapter 1 "Skills for a Changing World" of the Diplomatic Planner, as part of supplementary learning and development to help you contextualise the wider work of diplomacy and international relations.
Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright talks bluntly about politics and diplomacy, making the case that women's issues deserve a place at the center of foreign policy. Far from being a "soft" issue, she says, women's issues are often the very hardest ones, dealing directly with life and death. A frank and funny Q&A with Pat Mitchell from the Paley Center.
ABOUT THE SPEAKER
Madeleine Albright is one of America’s leading authorities on foreign affairs. Unanimously confirmed as the first female Secretary of State in 1997, she became the highest-ranking woman in U.S. government history. During her four-year tenure, Albright reinforced U.S. alliances, advocated for democracy and human rights, and promoted American trade, business, labor and environmental standards abroad.
Since then, Albright has continued her distinguished career as a businesswoman, political adviser and professor. She is chair of Albright Stonebridge Group, a global strategy firm, and Albright Capital Management LLC, an investment advisory firm focused on emerging markets. Albright also chairs the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and the Pew Global Attitudes Project and serves on the boards of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Aspen Institute and the Center for a New American Security. She also teaches diplomacy at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service.
Pat Mitchell: What is the story of this pin?
Madeleine Albright: This is "Breaking the Glass Ceiling."
PM: Oh. That was well chosen, I would say, for TEDWomen.
MA: Most of the time I spend when I get up in the morning is trying to figure out what is going to happen. And none of this pin stuff would have happened if it hadn't been for Saddam Hussein. I'll tell you what happened. I went to the United Nations as an ambassador, and it was after the Gulf War, and I was an instructed ambassador. And the cease-fire had been translated into a series of sanctions resolutions, and my instructions were to say perfectly terrible things about Saddam Hussein constantly, which he deserved -- he had invaded another country. And so all of a sudden, a poem appeared in the papers in Baghdad comparing me to many things, but among them an "unparalleled serpent." And so I happened to have a snake pin. So I wore it when we talked about Iraq. (Laughter) And when I went out to meet the press, they zeroed in, said, "Why are you wearing that snake pin?" I said, "Because Saddam Hussein compared me to an unparalleled serpent." And then I thought, well this is fun. So I went out and I bought a lot of pins that would, in fact, reflect what I thought we were going to do on any given day. So that's how it all started.
PM: So how large is the collection?
MA: Pretty big. It's now traveling. At the moment it's in Indianapolis, but it was at the Smithsonian. And it goes with a book that says, "Read My Pins."
PM: So is this a good idea. I remember when you were the first woman as Secretary of State, and there was a lot of conversation always about what you were wearing, how you looked -- the thing that happens to a lot of women, especially if they're the first in a position. So how do you feel about that -- the whole --
MA: Well, it's pretty irritating actually because nobody ever describes what a man is wearing. But people did pay attention to what clothes I had. What was interesting was that, before I went up to New York as U.N. ambassador, I talked to Jeane Kirkpatrick, who'd been ambassador before me, and she said, "You've got to get rid of your professor clothes. Go out and look like a diplomat." So that did give me a lot of opportunities to go shopping. But still, there were all kinds of questions about -- "did you wear a hat?" "How short was your skirt?" And one of the things -- if you remember Condoleezza Rice was at some event and she wore boots, and she got criticized over that. And no guy ever gets criticized. But that's the least of it.
PM: It is, for all of us, men and women, finding our ways of defining our roles, and doing them in ways that make a difference in the world and shape the future. How did you handle that balance between being the tough diplomatic and strong voice of this country to the rest of the world and also how you felt about yourself as a mother, a grandmother, nurturing ... and so how did you handle that?
MA: Well the interesting part was I was asked what it was like to be the first woman Secretary of State a few minutes after I'd been named. And I said, "Well I've been a woman for 60 years, but I've only been Secretary of State for a few minutes." So it evolved. (Laughter) But basically I love being a woman. And so what happened -- and I think there will probably be some people in the audience that will identify with this -- I went to my first meeting, first at the U.N., and that's when this all started, because that is a very male organization. And I'm sitting there -- there are 15 members of the Security Council -- so 14 men sat there staring at me, and I thought -- well you know how we all are. You want to get the feeling of the room, and "do people like me?" and "will I really say something intelligent?" And all of a sudden I thought, "Well, wait a minute. I am sitting behind a sign that says 'The United States,' and if I don't speak today then the voice of the United States will not be heard," and it was the first time that I had that feeling that I had to step out of myself in my normal, reluctant female mode and decide that I had to speak on behalf of our country. And so that happened more at various times, but I really think that there was a great advantage in many ways to being a woman. I think we are a lot better at personal relationships, and then have the capability obviously of telling it like it is when it's necessary. But I have to tell you, I have my youngest granddaughter, when she turned seven last year, said to her mother, my daughter, "So what's the big deal about Grandma Maddie being Secretary of State? Only girls are Secretary of State."
PM: Because in her lifetime -- MA: That would be so.
PM: What a change that is. As you travel now all over the world, which you do frequently, how do you assess this global narrative around the story of women and girls? Where are we?
MA: I think we're slowly changing, but obviously there are whole pockets in countries where nothing is different. And therefore it means that we have to remember that, while many of us have had huge opportunities -- and Pat, you have been a real leader in your field -- is that there are a lot of women that are not capable of worrying and taking care of themselves and understanding that women have to help other women. And so what I have felt -- and I have looked at this from a national security issue -- when I was Secretary of State, I decided that women's issues had to be central to American foreign policy, not just because I'm a feminist, but because I believe that societies are better off when women are politically and economically empowered, that values are passed down, the health situation is better, education is better, there is greater economic prosperity. So I think that it behooves us -- those of us that live in various countries where we do have economic and political voice -- that we need to help other women. And I really dedicated myself to that, both at the U.N. and then as Secretary of State.
PM: And did you get pushback from making that a central tenant of foreign policy?
MA: From some people. I think that they thought that it was a soft issue. The bottom line that I decided was actually women's issues are the hardest issues, because they are the ones that have to do with life and death in so many aspects, and because, as I said, it is really central to the way that we think about things. Now for instance, some of the wars that took place when I was in office, a lot of them, the women were the main victims of it. For instance, when I started, there were wars in the Balkans. The women in Bosnia were being raped. We then managed to set up a war crimes tribunal to deal specifically with those kinds of issues. And by the way, one of the things that I did at that stage was, I had just arrived at the U.N., and when I was there, there were 183 countries in the U.N. Now there are 192. But it was one of the first times that I didn't have to cook lunch myself. So I said to my assistant, "Invite the other women permanent representatives." And I thought when I'd get to my apartment that there'd be a lot of women there. I get there, and there are six other women, out of 183. So the countries that had women representatives were Canada, Kazakhstan, Philippines, Trinidad Tobago, Jamaica, Lichtenstein and me. So being an American, I decided to set up a caucus. (Laughter) And so we set it up, and we called ourselves the G7.
PM: Is that "Girl 7?"
MA: Girl 7. And we lobbied on behalf of women's issues. So we managed to get two women judges on this war crimes tribunal. And then what happened was that they were able to declare that rape was a weapon of war, that it was against humanity.
PM: So when you look around the world and you see that, in many cases -- certainly in the Western world -- women are evolving into more leadership positions, and even other places some barriers are being brought down, but there's still so much violence, still so many problems, and yet we hear there are more women at the negotiating tables. Now you were at those negotiating tables when they weren't, when there was maybe you -- one voice, maybe one or two others. Do you believe, and can you tell us why, there is going to be a significant shift in things like violence and peace and conflict and resolution on a sustainable basis?
MA: Well I do think, when there are more women, that the tone of the conversation changes, and also the goals of the conversation change. But it doesn't mean that the whole world would be a lot better if it were totally run by women. If you think that, you've forgotten high school. (Laughter) But the bottom line is that there is a way, when there are more women at the table, that there's an attempt to develop some understanding. So for instance, what I did when I went to Burundi, we'd got Tutsi and Hutu women together to talk about some of the problems that had taken place in Rwanda. And so I think the capability of women to put themselves -- I think we're better about putting ourselves into the other guy's shoes and having more empathy. I think it helps in terms of the support if there are other women in the room.
When I was Secretary of State, there were only 13 other women foreign ministers. And so it was nice when one of them would show up. For instance, she is now the president of Finland, but Tarja Halonen was the foreign minister of Finland and, at a certain stage, head of the European Union. And it was really terrific. Because one of the things I think you'll understand. We went to a meeting, and the men in my delegation, when I would say, "Well I feel we should do something about this," and they'd say, "What do you mean, you feel?" And so then Tarja was sitting across the table from me. And all of a sudden we were talking about arms control, and she said, "Well I feel we should do this." And my male colleagues kind of got it all of a sudden. But I think it really does help to have a critical mass of women in a series of foreign policy positions. The other thing that I think is really important: A lot of national security policy isn't just about foreign policy, but it's about budgets, military budgets, and how the debts of countries work out. So if you have women in a variety of foreign policy posts, they can support each other when there are budget decisions being made in their own countries.
PM: So how do we get this balance we're looking for, then, in the world? More women's voices at the table? More men who believe that the balance is best?
MA: Well I think one of the things -- I'm chairman of the board of an organization called the National Democratic Institute that works to support women candidates. I think that we need to help in other countries to train women to be in political office, to figure out how they can in fact develop political voices. I think we also need to be supportive when businesses are being created and just make sure that women help each other. Now I have a saying that I feel very strongly about, because I am of a certain age where, when I started in my career, believe it or not, there were other women who criticized me: "Why aren't you in the carpool line?" or "Aren't your children suffering because you're not there all the time?" And I think we have a tendency to make each other feel guilty. In fact, I think "guilt" is every woman's middle name. And so I think what needs to happen is we need to help each other. And my motto is that there's a special place in hell for women who don't help each other.
PM: Well Secretary Albright, I guess you'll be going to heaven. Thank you for joining us today.